Literary Takeaways: What I've Learned From Reading Conversations with a Pedophile - Part One
To grow as a Certified Trauma Recovery Coach means to constantly be learning and taking in the evolution of trauma, abusers and approaches to working with survivors. While not all the material is enjoyable or easy to read - it is important to soak up the knowledge.
Because I'd like to someday specialize in childhood sexual abuse trauma survivors as well as the family members of the perpetrator, I've decided to start reading everything I can get my hands on about the topic, especially first-hand accounts of those working with pedophiles.
Conversations with a Pedophile was exactly what I was looking for. Not only did the author work with pedophiles directly, she herself was a victim of sexual abuse. So this book ended up serving multiple purposes for me.
Before I dive into the specifics of what I took away from this book, I want to preface everything by saying that these are my opinions only and not representative of every trauma survivor or trauma recovery coach. These are my actual thoughts and reactions to what I read and the takeaways that I, personally, have from reading the book.
Because there are so many rich and robust thoughts that came from this book, I'll be splitting these posts so I don't overwhelm you.
Some of the statistics or statements I pull out may be common knowledge in this industry but since this blog is open to anyone, I want to make sure even those not in the industry understand the context behind the statistics/thoughts.
Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
There's a common visual that comes to mind when someone says the word "pedophile" or "child molester." The ones that people most often describe to me are: "the creepy man at the park that stares" or "the weirdo down the street that says hi to my children."
And yes, while I'm sure there have been pedophiles that could be described as such, it's largely untrue. In fact, 75% of offenders are known to or may be related to the victim. That means that more often than not, the person abusing a child is close to the family and/or the child. I fall into that statistic as I was sexually abused by my uncle.
When I correct people about this common visual, they usually scrunch up their noses and say, "Well that can't be. No one in my family would do that / is capable of that." But what most people don't understand is that pedophiles are amazing actors. They are skilled in deception, secrecy and showing only the traits they want people to see. Take, for example, Alan, the pedophile being interviewed in this book.
Before he went to prison (near the age of fifty), Alan was also the man next door — a Boy Scout leader, a deacon in his church. He was, by all accounts, an upstanding member of his community. 1
Those accolades don't sound like a pedophile, right? You'd be surprised that most pedophiles have accolades, accomplishments, and achievements like Alan, sometimes, even more impressive. This makes it extremely difficult for the community and the people who know these type of men to believe they'd do such a thing. In fact, that's what these men are banking on.
I've seen this firsthand. My dad's side of the family is from a small town in Iowa where everyone knows everyone else's business...usually. When I came forward about my uncle, I was not only NOT believed by the community, but I was made out to be a pariah. A bratty little girl who was put up to it by her mother (eye roll). My uncle was such an "upstanding" citizen of the community that they flat out refused to believe he'd done it. Then another victim came forward... and another... and still, to this day, there are many people in the community who stand by his side. Pedophiles can walk, talk and look like amazing people. They may even DO amazing things. But in the end, they are still pedophiles. In fact, sometimes, these men are actually very intelligent, well-spoken and literate.
Again, you can see this in the example the author gives us about Alan:
His writing is eloquent, intelligent, and insightful. In fact, at times, Alan’s writing style seems more like that of a doctor than mine. The reader may find this disconcerting on many levels. One of them may be that we wish to believe that child molesters are not as smart as we. Yet that often is simply untrue. 2
Recently, I re-read the letter my uncle sent to me years ago and I recognized the same thing that Amy refers to above. His letter was thoughtful, literate and smartly written. It was hard to reconcile the man who wrote this letter with the man who abused me.
I think a lot of people have a hard time admitting those conflicting feelings. Because we (as a society) want to believe that a person who does such bad things couldn't possibly also do good things or be smart and charming. It's easier to paint them as an evil entity rather than a human being that did something bad.
Nature Vs Nurture
I think one of the biggest takeaways from this book is that of Nature Vs. Nurture. It was my (wrong) assumption that pedophiles were born with this innate sickness just as someone who is born blind. I still believe that to be somewhat true, but after reading this book, I understand now that not all pedophiles are "born that way," and instead, some are "made that way." What do I mean by that? Take Alan's own words for example:
While people and circumstances have played a role in my development, it was me who pulled the pieces together in a way that served what I thought was in my personal best interest. My growing sense of difference became my total sense of identity. I used my self-created sense of victimization as a tool to justify my thoughts or actions. I saw myself as a person who, “through no fault of his own,” was deprived of a “normal” life. And as I convinced myself that I had been somehow cheated by fate, I felt I had a license to do anything I chose to. If I didn’t play by their rules, why should I? I was never allowed to “play in their game.” If I wanted to force some smaller child into having sex, why shouldn’t I? After all, I was the real victim here, not him. This self-created and self-serving sense of victimization allowed me to do anything that I desired without the slightest twinge of guilt, shame, responsibility, or remorse.3
Alan's statement is incredibly self-aware and honest. He knows (now) that his pedophilia was developed on various internal struggles, but this is not a man who I believe was just "born that way." It's very difficult to show Alan's progression in the space we have here, but after reading the chapter of his life, his upbringing and his decisions, I'm convinced that this man made deliberate choices to be who he is. This is a game changer in my opinion. Because if someone can choose who they want to be, they can also choose who they do not want to be, right? This is both unsettling and promising. Unsettling because it means that some men know exactly what they're doing when they develop into pedophiles. But promising because it means that if we can figure out how to help these men, they may have a chance at rehabilitation and recovery.
Another huge revelation in terms of Alan's "developed pedophilia" is something I never considered and that is of a child's sexuality. Again, as a society, we want to avoid or pretend that childhood sexuality doesn't exist. But as Alan points out in his quote below, that's because we see it from an adult perspective. We know what sexuality looks, sounds and feels like as an adult and it's incomprehensible to think of a child having those same thoughts and feelings.
But that's just it. They don't. Even in "normal" and "acceptable" childhood sexual exploration - the thoughts, feelings and associations to sexuality are vastly different than they are as an adult.
Alan's own words about his childhood sexuality made me understand this concept a little bit better:
People can’t understand how I managed to become sexually active at such a tender age. I think that part of their amazement is based on a misunderstanding of what was actually happening at that time. They’re looking at this form of early sexual stimulation in adult terms, whereas what was taking place was something that does not fit into the adult definition of sexual gratification. 4
My initial attempts at masturbation were purely physical acts that resulted in my feeling physical pleasure. To the best of my recollection, when I began doing this, my actions were not brought about, or accompanied by, any type of sexual thoughts or fantasies. At the age of seven, for example, I did not lie in bed at night picturing a child whom I found physically attractive and then gratify myself by means of masturbation. Initially, my fantasies were totally nonsexual; and initially, my “playing with myself” was solely a separate physical act. 5
When I sat back and really thought about Alan's words, I began to see how true it could be. And then I started to do some research and discovered that there are numerous studies that have been done on early childhood maladaptive coping mechanisms and how they're developed during adverse childhood experiences (want to know more about this? Stay tuned, I have a post coming soon dedicated to the topic!).
Take for example, this excerpt from the article: Development of Maladaptive Coping: A Functional Adaptation to Chronic, Uncontrollable Stress.
Some youth have unhealthy or maladaptive coping repertoires that rely too heavily on a single strategy such as avoidance, tend to be inflexible and applied rigidly, and can include behaviors with serious negative consequences. Such underdeveloped or immature coping styles have been identified as proximal causal mechanisms that connect stressful childhoods to psychopathology. 6
So, essentially, children who develop a negative coping mechanism to deal with the stress in their lives, and continue to hold onto that negative coping mechanism tend to see the negative impacts as they age.
What happens in a child’s life to disrupt the normative developmental sequence and cause children to get stuck at an immature level of coping? Zimmer-Gembeck and Skinner’s integrative review showed that older children and adolescents may continue to use less mature or primitive forms of coping (e.g., escaping and seeking contact with a caregiver) when they face extremely stressful events. Research on child trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder suggests that children develop problematic coping to protect themselves from overwhelming stress such as maltreatment (17). Similarly, cognitive theories of depression suggest that children develop negative coping and thinking patterns from early invalidating interactions with caregivers. Thus, repeated use of developmentally primitive coping, lack of exposure to healthy alternatives, or repeated exposure to overwhelming stress may solidify a maladaptive style of coping—one that relies too much on primitive strategies such as avoidance and denial (e.g., 18).6
When I read the above excerpt from the study, I recognized Alan's story. Though Alan could not articulate what was happening to him throughout his childhood in this medical way, through his story, it's clear that this is exactly the type of situation he grew up in. His maladaptive coping mechanism of choice became sexuality. And because he relied on that faithfully as he developed into a young adult, it manifested into dangerous and destructive ways.
As you can see, this book not only provided me with thoughtful points to consider, it encouraged me to do more research to learn more about childhood trauma and how it can be a factor in developing the exact people causing trauma.
Stay tuned for part two of this post!
1 Zabin, Dr. Amy. Conversations With A Pedophile: In the Interest of Our Children (p. 2). Barricade Books. Kindle Edition.
2 Zabin, Dr. Amy. Conversations With A Pedophile: In the Interest of Our Children (p. 3). Barricade Books. Kindle Edition.
3 Zabin, Dr. Amy. Conversations With A Pedophile: In the Interest of Our Children (p. 34). Barricade Books. Kindle Edition.
4 Zabin, Dr. Amy. Conversations With A Pedophile: In the Interest of Our Children (p. 45). Barricade Books. Kindle Edition.
5 Zabin, Dr. Amy. Conversations With A Pedophile: In the Interest of Our Children (pp. 45-46). Barricade Books. Kindle Edition.
6 Wadsworth, M. E. (2015). Development of Maladaptive Coping: A Functional Adaptation to Chronic, Uncontrollable Stress. Child Development Perspectives, 9(2), 96–100. http://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12112